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City manager candidates lay out their visions for leading Austin

The two finalists for Austin’s next city manager took the stage at the convention center and offered two different visions of what the city’s next top employee could be: a young, consensus-building outsider on the one hand, and an experienced public servant familiar with Austin on the other.

At an open forum Tuesday night for the public to meet the candidates, Spencer Cronk, the 38-year-old city coordinator of Minneapolis, characterized himself as a person guided by curiosity, bridge-building, problem-solving, equity and collaboration. He’s Smokey the Bear, not Ranger Rick, he told the audience — someone with a focus on solving problems before they occur.

Howard Lazarus, the 61-year-old city administrator of Ann Arbor, Mich., and former Austin public works director, spoke about his time at West Point, noting that the military taught him about service and working in a large organization. Raising his kids, he joked, taught him about negotiating with unreasonable people.

MEET THE CANDIDATES: Lazarus looks to return to Austin

While Cronk has declined to say what he would like to change in Austin, Lazarus offered at least one specific item he would like to see altered: the cumbersome budget process that dominates many officials’ calendars for large portions of the year.

Lazarus said he would move the city toward a two-year budget cycle. The city would still approve a budget each year, as required by the city charter, but the off-years would be about making tweaks to the budget and limiting those changes as much as possible.

“We have to commit to not making that many changes,” he said.

He suggested approving the two-year budget in odd years, when no council members are up for election. That would allow the council to focus on the budget process.

While re-establishing relationships is one thing Lazarus said would be a top priority during the first months as Austin’s city manager, he would also have to dive into CodeNext, the ongoing effort to rewrite Austin’s land use code.

GET SMART FAST: What you need to know about Austin’s CodeNext hubbub

CodeNext efforts were underway when he took the job in Ann Arbor in June 2016. And if he becomes the next city manager, he would have to usher it over the goal line, something Lazarus said he is committed to doing.

“It’s critical to our future,” Lazarus said. “We don’t have a choice. … We have to speak with one voice. We have to support it.”

Cronk emphasized talking with people involved in the process and affected by the rewrite, calling an understanding of others’ viewpoints the beginning to solving any complex problem.

Asked about transit, Cronk noted that any holistic plans to improving transportation would need infrastructure and would begin by looking at the ideas the community has already formed.

“There’s been a lot of work on various plans,” he said.

MEET THE CANDIDATES: Cronk touts ability to bring sides together

Adam Cahn, a local blogger, said his main concern was the City Council ending up locking itself into a long-term contract in hiring the city manager. He said both candidates seemed able, but he preferred Lazarus.

“Lazarus at least knows what he is talking about,” Cahn said. “Cronk seems like he is just full of government clichés.”

Joell McNew, vice president of University of Texas security nonprofit SafeHorns, took an opposite view, saying the forum had swung her preference from Lazarus to Cronk.

“I thought Lazarus having been here could be a positive, but then, after hearing them in person, the characteristics that Cronk described really sold me on his engagement,” McNew said. “Surprisingly, Lazarus having so much experience in this city, referred to rebuilding old relationships too much for my comfort level. We need change.”

Angela Conley said she liked Cronk for his answers about building bridges through communication.

“I’ve always been of the mind that any resolution can be reached by talking,” Conley said. “He seems like not only does he have an open mind, but he can get others to open their minds.”

Presidents of the city’s public safety unions said they left morning meetings with the candidates impressed by both.

“Spencer Cronk’s more of, in my opinion, a consensus-builder and doesn’t have quite the experience that Lazarus does,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. “Howard is the complete package, and very familiar with Austin. I’m not going to lie, I like both of them for very different reasons.”

Austin’s next city manager will assume day-to-day responsibility over all city departments, a $3.9 billion budget and more than 17,000 employees, and will be expected to execute the City Council’s policies on such priority issues as improving transportation and access to affordable housing.

The public forum came near the end of a more than yearlong process of looking for a new city manager after Marc Ott left in September 2016 for a job in Washington, D.C. Seeking to attract the strongest candidate pool, the City Council initially said it would keep all candidates’ names secret until it picked one, leading to intense efforts to maintain secrecy and a lawsuit from the American-Statesman over the list of contenders.

BACKGROUND: Did Austin break law with ‘secret’ city manager search?

Twitter users first identified both Lazarus and Cronk after Statesman reporters staking out job interviews tweeted their photos. The council later voted to release the names of six semifinalists and bring the finalists to a public forum.

The council expects to vote on a hire next week.

Mayor Steve Adler, who introduced the pair Tuesday, said search firm Russell Reynolds sought out some 200 applicants in addition to 50 who initially applied. He emphasized the post’s importance in a city such as Austin, which relies on a hired professional, not an elected official, to run day-to-day operations.

“The city manager is the person that runs the ship,” Adler said. “The City Council is kind of like the board of directors, but the CEO is the city manager.”

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